This is the movie that made John Wayne a superstar. He had done well enough before, but he was known for just making westerns, and everybody knew westerns were B pictures. John Ford, working with John Wayne, pulled them out of the genre ghetto (much like George Lucas did with science fiction) with this and other really good movies.
I love this movie, but I don’t kid myself about its weaknesses. They are faults that were almost universal at the time, but stand out glaringly today. Wayne is the solid center that the movie revolves around. In every scene you can see his stillness, his gravitas, in stark contrast to the wildly over-acted stereotypes of the other characters. By not flailing about and shouting, he established himself as a much better actor than he had ever been given credit for. Jeffrey Hunter as the impetuous kid is painful to look at. Then there is John Qualen, who ends every sentence with “by golly,” and was the ineffectual, comic Swede in about a thousand movies, yumpin’ yimini! Even worse is Hank Worden, whose portrayal of a simpleton is just embarrassing. And I’m from Texas, have been all over that sprawling state, and I can tell you that the idea that these spectacular rock formations are anywhere in the Lone Star State is laughable. As is the idea that anyone could successfully farm or ranch that land in the days before irrigation.
But who cares? The Monument Valley in Utah is an iconic location for westerns, which is one of the appeals of movies like this. Ford captured it in all its arid glory. It is a landscape just designed for John Wayne to lurch through in his weird, almost stumbling gait. Ford uses a visual device several times of shooting from a dark cabin through a square doorway into the bright desert. The way it is framed is just perfect for Wayne, including the famous final shot, where he pauses and looks into the cabin where everybody has gone, seeming sort of wistful that this world will never really be for the likes of him. Then he turns around and walks slowly away from the camera. Genius!
Must mention that there are two stunning reversals in the last ten minutes, changes of mind that really can’t be justified. First, Natalie Wood, as fifteen-year-old Debbie (she was actually eighteen) abruptly wants to be rescued from the Comanche tribe after stating earlier that “these are my people now.” Huh? And then a few minutes later, Ethan, who had decided a few years ago that if he found her alive and living with an Indian “buck,” he would kill her, because it was a fate worse than death, suddenly decides to take her back to white “civilization.” Wha ….?
This all seems like somebody told the screenwriter we had to have a happy ending, so he just plugged this in. And BTW, it is far from certain that it would be a happy ending. Earlier we saw three white women who had been driven insane after being kidnapped by Indians. This actually was not uncommon. Some adjusted, certainly, and the younger you were the easier it was to adapt, like Jack Crabbe in Little Big Man. But going back to white society would not be easy for Debbie, and in fact could be a disaster. She would be probably be shunned by almost everybody, and men would see her as damaged goods. I wish her well, but I am dubious.